How can herbal medicine help those with severe Mental Illness?

As a therapist, I see people with severe mental illness frequently.  Some have visions.  Some hear voices,  Some become paranoid.  Many are lonely, scared, isolated, depressed, angry and sad.   Many of the people I see are impoverished, often because their mental illness has made it impossible for them to effectively work in the world.  That impoverishment often leads to living in substandard housing or becoming homeless, which compounds the initial illness.  Many of the folks I see turn to using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the struggle of life and develop a “dual diagnosis.”

Its hard to imagine that plant based medicines can do much to help folks who are struggling at this level.  But in fact I see it every time I work at my hospital.  At the place I work, we have a therapeutic garden adjacent to one of the psychiatric units.images-1

There, one of the therapists (or bodhisatvas) helps to create a garden filled with flowers, shrubs, edible plants such as blueberries and huckleberries and scented herbs such as dill, thyme and rosemary.  It is truly a full sensory experience.  I see some of the patients who are suffering to such a high degree suddenly come to life.  I see patients eating, smelling, taking in the sights, laughing a little more, engaging.  They are not taking an herbal medicine given to them by an herbalist but they are filling their senses with the natural world in a way that is momentarily lifting and healing.

In my practice as an herbalist I don’t look for big miracles.  What I do look for is helping people find a window, a chink of light to shine, if even for a few seconds.  Perhaps that’s sharing conversation over a cup of chamomile tea, or joining them in a garden to take in the sights and aroma of the natural world. From those few moments a new possibility emerges.  A way of living that is full of more hope.  More peace.

Yes there are herbs that are helpful for anxiety, depression, worry, sadness and pain.  In my practice, I try to help bring people to the plants that are the most nourishing, that can build up the reserves and strength of someone who has been suffering through trauma.  Nourishing infusions of nettles, oat straw, red clover, and others are some of my mainstays.  They are filled with vitamins and minerals and are easily absorbed in the digestive system where pills sometimes pass right through.  People start to feel a little more alive, a little more zingy.  They sense their own innate power to heal, to get healthier, to become more alive.

Herbs will not get people better housing, or find them work, or take away the trauma that often helped to bring on mental illness.  But they do provide a doorway, a pathway to becoming more whole, stronger, more present.  And perhaps through those small changes, a greater transformation is possible.  The simple act of smelling and tasting a cup of tea, or taking in the majesty of a garden in bloom can remind us that at the core none of us are broken, and all of us have the possibility to take wing and fly again.



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